Setting Tile Countertops

Choose tiles made for the purpose. That usually means that they will be 1/2 inch thick. They should be glazed, or they will stain easily. It is usually best to use either a light-colored grout or one that comes close to the color of the tile, rather than a dark, starkly contrasting color that will emphasize any imperfections. To be sure the tile color and finish is consistent, work with a tile dealer who can supply you with all of the field tiles, decorative or bullnose tiles for the front edge, and radius bullnose for the backsplash. Every tile whose edge will be exposed must have a rounded edge on one side called a bullnose or cap. Don’t use a field tile and then attempt to give it a finished edge with grout; it will look ugly and wear poorly.

Use the adhesive recommended by your dealer. Thin-set mortar is usually the best choice. If you want to make the installation waterproof, be sure to choose all materials with that end in mind. Work slowly and systematically. Setting a tile countertop is an ideal weekend project and provides good training for tackling more complex tiling jobs later on.

Tools: Tape measure, level, square, tile cutter, notched trowel, grout float.

1. Plan the job. Prepare a firm, level, and flat surface for the tiles. Be sure that the total thickness of the substrate will be covered by the edging you choose (see next page). Check the substrate for level and square. If you are using backsplash edging tile with a large radius, provide backing for it by fastening a strip of backerboard to the wall. Check the layout for the backsplash to find out if you will encounter any obstructions.

2. Lay out a dry run. Set the tiles in place, positioning them exactly as you want the finished surface to look. Use plastic spacers, and check that all lines are straight. To mark lines for cutting, hold each tile in place rather than measuring.

The Right Grout - Because grout joints on counter-tops are visible and subjected to spills, it is important to use the best grout mixture possible. Use sanded grout for grout joints wider than Me inch. Mix the grout with a liquid latex additive rather than water for added protection against liquid penetration. If mildew is likely to be a problem, use an additive that inhibits the growth of mildew. Plan to seal the grout a week or two after installation.

3. Choose the edging. The edging on a countertop is not just a decorative element added on at the end of the job. As an integral part of the counter, it must figure in your planing at each step of the way. Your choice of edge treatment will affect preparation and thickness of the substrate as well as the placement of reference lines. You can add color and interest to a countertop by edging it with a combination of decorative border strips overlapped by bullnose tiles. A V-cap provides a slight lip that keeps water from dripping down the edge of the counter. Another alternative involves two bullnose edging pieces, one on the counter surface, one on the edging. Install the edge pieces and the surface tiles at the same time to keep them aligned.

Edging with Wood - Wood looks great as an edging material on kitchen countertops, and it is easy to install. It does create some additional maintenance concerns, however. Wood expands and contracts with temperature and humidity changes, but tiles and grout do not. So keep the wood separated from the tile with caulk. Set the edging flush with the top of the tile, or a little higher to create a drip-proof lip. Position the tiles about 1/8 inch shy of the edge of the substrate, to allow space for caulk. Attach the edging to the plywood substrate with countersunk screws every 6-8 inches, then hide the screw heads with plugs or filler. Or attach the edging with a biscuit joiner, for a surface free of screw holes.

Caution! Seal the Wood - One of the biggest challenges posed by wood edging on a countertop is keeping the wood looking as good as new years after it was installed. Use a tough hardwood, such as maple or oak, to help minimize dents and scrapes. Before installing the edging, coat all sides with a durable clear wood finish such as polyurethane. Apply more finish to any penetrations made in the wood while it is being installed. In the years to come, watch for dark stains on the wood, which could indicate that water has found its way into the wood. In that case, sand away the stain and apply another coat of finish.

4. Cut tiles. For the straight cuts, use a snap cutter. If you have many cuts to make, a wet saw may make the job go faster. Many of the cuts will be for the same size, so you can set the guide and cut them factory-style. For small curved or irregular cuts, use nippers or a rod saw.

5. Spread adhesive. Mix the thin-set mortar as directed on the label. If the powder does not contain a latex additive, use a liquid latex additive instead of water to mix with the powder. Let the mixture rest for ten minutes, then mix it again. Spread the adhesive with a notched trowel.

6. Set tiles. Set the tiles along the reference lines, pressing each one into the adhesive with a slight twist. Avoid sliding the tiles. Use plastic spacers to keep all of the joints even. Check the alignment of set tiles regularly.

Backsplash Options - Integrate the backsplash with the countertop, using the same tile patterns on both surfaces, with grout joints that line up. Or, treat the backsplash as an element all its own, using colors and sizes of tile that are unrelated to those on the countertop. Make colorful backsplashes by using a variety of tiles. If you are creating a backsplash of surface bullnose tiles directly on the wall, it must be reasonably flat and in sound condition. A built-up backsplash mimics the look of a traditional mortar-bed installation. Use plywood or backerboard to fill in the space behind a radius bullnose. A cove tile in the corner makes cleanup easier. Each material requires a different layout.

7. Set backsplash tiles. If you are using backsplash tiles that are the same width as the tiles on the countertop, install them so that the grout joints line up. Because these tiles are not subject to much wear and tear, it is possible to set them directly on the wall. Set backsplash tiles above the countertop tiles by the width of a grout joint.

8. Trim the backsplash. If you use bullnose tiles set directly on the wall, you will not need to add trim tiles to the backsplash. If the backsplash is built out away from the wall, add radius bullnose trim tiles.

9. Bed the tiles. After setting tiles in one section, bed them into the adhesive with a beating block. Move the beating block over the tiles while tapping lightly with a hammer. Clean out any excess adhesive that squeezes into grout joints.

10. Grout and seal. Let the set tiles rest for 24 hours. Mix grout with a latex additive. Apply with a grout float, pushing the mixture into the joints. When the joints are filled, hold the float at nearly a right angle to the countertop and wipe away the excess. Do not use grout in the joint between the countertop and backsplash tiles; this joint and the space between the backsplash tile and the wall should be filled with caulk or sealant. Wipe away excess grout with a sponge, then remove the grout haze once it appears. Apply grout sealer after the grout has cured.

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